Rafida Bonya Ahmed is my hero. She narrowly survived a machete attack by Islamists in Dhaka, an attack that claimed the life of her husband Avjit Roy, only to rise up and push even more forcefully for the very ideals that made the couple a target. Delivering the keynote address to the Reason Rally mini-con, Ahmed powerfully used her personal experiences as a lens to view an out of control emergency in Bangladesh and a crisis for secularism.
Those who follow the work of CFI know the horrible story: secularists, LGBT activists, and religious minorities have been slaughtered in public by Islamic extremists, aligned with various Islamist terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The murder of her husband in February of last year kicked off a spree of these kinds of killings, with two more having occurred in the past 24 hours alone.
Ahmed recalled her life growing up in Bangladesh, when being an open atheist was not dangerous, just maybe thought of as quirky. But war and economic disparity took their toll, opening the door for fundamentalism to entrench itself and gain the influence it enjoys today, such that the government of Bangladesh repeatedly blames the victims of the recent attacks for hurting religious feelings, and denies the presence of these terror groups who claim responsibility for the murders.
What Ahmed said that I think had the greatest implications for our work was her contention that the attack on her and her husband, and all that have followed, are not merely “attacks on free expression,” as even we at CFI have often framed them. They were really attacks on acknowledging reality and the rejection of superstition. It’s far more than an attempt to stop free expression in the abstract, it’s an attempt to stop the expression of science and reason. “[The victims] died because they understood that what science tells us about the past has consequences for how we deal with the future,” she said.
“Secular humanism is way more important today than ever in the history of our species,” she declared, “unless they did something spectacular before we learned how to write.” (She lost her train of thought for a moment, giggling at that last thought about prehistoric people with incredibly progressive values.)
She took a global view of the factors contributing to the growing influence and violence of fundamentalists, pointing the finger at various nations and institutions that have allowed these things to emerge, and castigated those who equate criticism of Islam with racism. “We must…have the courage to to call out ingrained religious fundamentalism with a very scientific mind.”
After her presentation, some of us were talking about how it was a shame that Ahmed must always be introduced as “the wife of Avijit Roy,” and it’s true that it would be better if her name alone currently had the renown that such an association was unnecessary. But I also know that when I think of that association, I never think of her as “wife of” someone. I think of her as Rafida Bonya Ahmed, the brilliant woman who the extremists could not kill, and who overcame her injuries, her terror, and her enormous loss to stand back up and continue her fight. She’s my hero.